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The Trouble with Disparity

If the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd are supposed to have made visible inequalities that no one had seen, the death rates both from the virus and at the hands of the police have been met with analyses that repeat what everyone has always said—first, in the diagnosis of what’s produced those inequalities and, second, in the recommendation for eliminating them. The problem (thought to be so ingrained in American life that it’s sometimes called America’s original sin) is racism; the solution is antiracism. And the confidence in both the diagnosis and the cure is so high that it’s produced action everywhere from BLM protesting in the streets to the Mississippi legislature voting to take down its flag to corporate boardrooms pledging literally billions of dollars—all with the admirable goal of ending white supremacy.

All this takes place, of course, against the backdrop of an economy that—for white people as well as for black—has become more and more unequal over the last half century. The Gini index (a measure of inequality in which zero means we all have the same while one means one person has everything) has gone from .397 in 1967 to .485 today. (By contrast, the worst current score in Europe is basically what ours was a half century ago.) And most of the people—at least on the left—who worry about racial disparity no doubt believe that inequality between classes is a problem too. Indeed, they may well believe that attacking racism is also a step in the direction of attacking the gap between the top decile of American wealth and everybody else.

But they are mistaken. In fact, not only will a focus on the effort to eliminate racial disparities not take us in the direction of a more equal society, it isn’t even the best way of eliminating racial disparities themselves. If the objective is to eliminate black poverty rather than simply to benefit the upper classes, we believe the diagnosis of racism is wrong, and the cure of antiracism won’t work. Racism is real and antiracism is both admirable and necessary, but extant racism isn’t what principally produces our inequality and antiracism won’t eliminate it. And because racism is not the principal source of inequality today, antiracism functions more as a misdirection that justifies inequality than a strategy for eliminating it.

What makes racism look like the problem? The very real racial disparities visible in American life. And what makes antiracism look like the solution? Two plausible but false beliefs: that racial disparities can in fact be eliminated by antiracism and that, if they could be, their elimination would make the U.S. a more equal society. The racial wealth gap, because it is so striking and commonly invoked, is a very good, not to say perfect, illustration of how, in our view, both the problem and solution are wrongly conceived.

It is well known by now that whites have more net wealth than blacks at every income level, and the overall racial difference in wealth is massive. Why can’t antiracism solve this problem? Because, as Robert Manduca has shown, the fact that blacks were overrepresented among the poor at the beginning of a period in which “low income workers of all races” have been hurt by the changes in American economic life has meant that they have “borne the brunt” of those changes.1 The lack of progress in overcoming the white/black wealth gap has been a function of the increase in the rich/poor wealth gap.

In fact, if you look at how white and black wealth are distributed in the U.S., you see right away that the very idea of racial wealth is an empty one. The top 10 percent of white people have 75 percent of white wealth; the top 20 percent have virtually all of it. And the same is true for black wealth. The top 10 percent of black households hold 75 percent of black wealth.

That means, as Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project recently noted, “the overall racial wealth disparity is driven almost entirely by the disparity between the wealthiest 10 percent of white people and the wealthiest 10 percent of black people.” While Bruenig is clear that a discernible wealth gap exists across class levels, he explored the impact of eliminating the gap between the bottom 90 percent of each group and found that after doing so 77.5 percent of the overall gap would remain. He then examined the effect of eliminating the wealth gap between the bottom 50 percent—the median point—of each population and found that doing so would eliminate only 3 percent of the racial gap. So, 97 percent of the racial wealth gap exists among the wealthiest half of each population. And, more tellingly, more than three-fourths of it is concentrated in the top 10 percent of each. If you say to those white people in the bottom 50 percent (people who have basically no wealth at all) that the basic inequality in the U.S. is between black and white, they know you are wrong. More tellingly, if you say the same thing to the black people in the bottom 50 percent (people who have even less than no wealth at all), they also know you are wrong. It’s not all the white people who have the money; it’s the top ten percent of (mainly) whites, and some blacks and some Asians. The wealth gap among all but the wealthiest blacks and whites is dwarfed by the class gap, the difference between the wealthiest and everyone else across the board.

As a diagnosis, identifying disparities is taxonomic and rhetorical, not etiological. Insisting that we understand those inequalities as evidence of racism is a demand about how we should classify and feel about them, not an effort to examine their specific causes. While the wealth gap reflects the effects of racism, both past and present, it does not explain how exactly the gaps are produced, up and down the income and wealth distribution. For example, between 1968 and 2016 black Americans made significant advances into occupations and job categories to which they’d previously been denied access. Consistent with that expanded opportunity, in the paper we mentioned above, Manduca found that during that period black/white disparities in income rank—where median group income falls in the national income distribution, measured in centiles—narrowed by nearly a third. That was nowhere near parity but a definite improvement. (Black median income rose from the twenty-fifth centile to the thirty-fifth.) However, during the same period the overall black/white income gap was virtually unchanged. The reason was the extreme concentration of income at the top during that period. In fact, black median income at the twenty-fifth centile in 1968 equaled 55 percent of the national mean, but in 2016 income at the thirty-fifth centile equaled only 48 percent of the national income average. It’s not racism that was responsible for that relative decline; it’s neoliberal capitalism.

Even as a program for addressing racial disparities, antiracism is not much of a remedy for inequality. If the racial wealth gap were somehow eliminated up and down the distribution, 90 percent of black people would still have only 25 percent of total wealth, and the top 10 percent of blacks would still hold 75 percent. And this is only to be expected because in a society with sharp and increasing overall inequality, eliminating racial “gaps” in the distribution of advantages and disadvantages by definition does not affect the larger, and more fundamental, pattern of inequality.

That inadequacy becomes clearer when we consider the argumentative sleight-of-hand that drives disparity discourse. What we’re actually saying every time we insist that the basic inequality is between blacks and whites is that the only inequalities we care about are those produced by some form of discrimination—that inequality itself isn’t the problem, it’s only the inequalities produced by racism and sexism, etc. What disparity discourse tells us is that, if you have an economy that’s getting more and more unequal, that’s mainly generating jobs that don’t even pay a living wage, the problem we need to solve is not how to reduce that inequality and not how to make those jobs better but how to make sure that they aren’t disproportionately held by black and brown people.

It’s true, as political scientist Preston H. Smith II has shown, that in the form of what he calls “racial democracy,” some black people have championed the ideal of a hierarchical ladder on which blacks and other nonwhites would be represented on every rung in rough proportion to their representation in the general population.2 But the fact that some black people have desired it doesn’t make racial democracy desirable. As we have noted, separately, together, and repeatedly, the implication of proportionality as the metric of social justice is that the society would be just if 1 percent of the population controlled 90 percent of the resources so long as 13 percent of the 1 percent were black, 14 percent were Hispanic, half were women, etc.

Complaints about disproportionality are liberal math. And a politics centered on challenging disproportionality comes with the imprimatur of no less a Doctor of the Church of Left Neoliberalism than economist Paul Krugman, who asserted in his role as ideologist for the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign that “horizontal” inequality, i.e., inequalities measured “between racially or culturally defined groups,” is what’s really important in America and dismissed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ elaborate program for social-democratic redistribution as “a pipe dream.”3

It’s the fixation on disproportionality that tells us the increasing wealth of the one percent would be OK if only there more black, brown, and LGBTQIA+ billionaires. And the fact that antiracism and antidiscrimination of all kinds would validate rather than undermine the stratification of wealth in American society is completely visible to those who currently possess that wealth—all the rich people eager to embark on a course of moral purification (antiracist training) but with no interest whatsoever in a politics (social-democratic redistribution) that would alter the material conditions that make them rich.

By contrast, the strain in black politics that converged around what Smith calls the social- (rather than racial-)democratic ideal proceeded from the understanding that, because most black Americans are in the working class—and disproportionately so, partly because of the same effects of past and current racism we allude to above—black people would also benefit disproportionately from redistributive agendas that expand social wage policies and enhance the living standards and security of working people universally. The tension between those two ideals of social justice, as Smith indicates, was, and is, a tension arising from differences in perception and values rooted in different class positions.

Thus the fact that, over the last half century (as American society has reached new heights of inequality and as Democrats have done very little more than Republicans to combat it), the racial-democratic principle in black politics, and in the society in general, has displaced the social-democratic one, has been a victory for the class—black and white—that has supported it. In its insistence that proportionality is the only defensible norm and metric of social justice, antiracist politics rejects universal programs of social-democratic redistribution in favor of what is ultimately a racial trickle-down approach according to which making more black people rich and rich black people richer is a benefit to all black people.

It is instructive in this regard that the racial wealth gap has become the gold standard, as it were, of racial injustice. For one thing, the academics, NGO functionaries, media commentators and the like who stress it as a matter for public concern are themselves typically rooted in the professional-managerial strata among which it is most visible and experienced most acutely. Complaints about white co-workers whose parents provide them with down payments on $700,000 condos do not much exist in the working class. Not only is the gap mainly an upper-status affair; defining it as a crucial marker of racial inequality, as Manduca’s work illustrates, naturalizes the forces that produce the larger, more consequential framework of capitalist inequality within which wealth is produced and distributed. Indeed, fixation on the wealth gap is so thoroughly marinated in neoliberal fantasies that accumulating individual wealth is the route to security, dignity and self-respect and that racism is the only impediment to realizing those fantasies, that it obscures the more proximate sources of racial inequality, as well more direct and concrete responses to that inequality. Dionissi Aliprantis and Daniel Carroll, in a report for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, found that the most important source of the persisting racial wealth gap is the income gap. They indicate, based on a sophisticated model of wealth accumulation that adjusts for different patterns of saving across the life cycle, that, if current trends persist, it would take 259 years for black mean wealth to equal 90 percent of the white mean. Adjusting the model to assume that black/white income equality had been attained in 1962, they find that median black family wealth would have reached 90 percent of white family wealth by 2007.

Policies of social-democratic redistribution that reduce the effective income differentials between top and bottom, combined with serious anti-discrimination measures and increased public investment that restores and expands the public sector where black and brown workers are disproportionately employed, it turns out, would do more to reduce even the racial wealth gap than genuine pipe-dream proposals like reparations or other Rube Goldberg-like asset-building strategies. Resistance to such an approach throws into relief the extent to which antiracism as a politics is an artifact and engine of neoliberalism. It does a better job legitimizing market-based principles of social justice than increasing racial equality. And a key component of that work of legitimation is deflection of social-democratic alternatives.

We can see how this works in a recent report from the National Women’s Law Center, which, in the context of the current health crisis, found not only that “Black women are disproportionately represented in front-line jobs providing essential public services” but also that the black women doing these jobs “are typically paid just 89 cents for every dollar typically paid to white, non-Hispanic men in the same roles.”4 For example,the median hourly wage for white, non-Hispanic personal care aides, home health aides and nursing assistants (at the very front of the front lines) is $14.42; the median hourly wage for black women doing the same job is $12.84. When the authors of the survey say that “This difference in wages results in an annual loss that can be devastating for Black women and their families that were already struggling to make ends meet before the public health critics,” they are right. And this is precisely the kind of injustice that the battle against disparity is meant to address.

But it is also precisely the kind of injustice that reveals the class character of that battle.The white men are making $14.42! Disparity tells us the problem to solve is the $1.58 an hour difference between the black women and the white men. Reality tells us that the extra $1.58 won’t rescue those women from precarity. The men are also being paid starvation wages! In fact, everyone receiving an hourly wage of less than
$20 an hour is in a precarious economic position. And the problem here is not just that this report makes no reference to the need to raise the wages of all the workers in front-line occupational categories. Every time we cast the objectionable inequality in terms of disparity we make the fundamental injustice—the difference between what front-line workers make and what their bosses and the shareholders in the corporations their bosses work for make—either invisible, or worse. Because if your idea of social justice is making wages for underpaid black women equal to those of slightly less underpaid white men, you either can’t see the class structure or you have accepted the class structure.

The extent to which even nominal leftists ignore this reality is an expression of the extent of neoliberalism’s ideological victory over the last four decades. Indeed, if we remember Margaret Thatcher’s dictum, “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul,” the weaponizing of antiracism to deploy liberal morality as the solution to capitalism’s injustices makes it clear it’s the soul of the left she had in mind. Thus, for example, the reception of Raj Chetty and his coauthors’ widely discussed 2018 study of intergenerational economic mobility made it clear that their most shocking finding was the degree to which rich black people are less likely than their white counterparts to pass their status on to their children, especially their male children. As if the difficulty rich people might experience in passing on their expropriated wealth is made into a left issue by the fact that the rich people in question are black.5 Of course, the study’s authors aren’t necessarily responsible for how news media represent its significance, but they are totally responsible for the fact that their work largely disconnects economic mobility—and racial disparities—from political economy, in both diagnosis and proposed remedies. For them “the critical question to understand the black-white gap in the long run is: do black children have lower incomes than white children conditional on parental income, and if so, how can we reduce these intergenerational gaps?” Their idea of the basic problem really isn’t that unfair advantage is being passed from generation to generation but that it’s being passed more effectively between white people than between blacks.

And their solutions, which center on the putative effects of factors like family and neighborhood, are primarily focused on the souls of both black and white folk. As historian Touré Reed has argued, their “three specific remedies: ‘mentoring programs for black boys, efforts to reduce racial bias among whites, or efforts to facilitate social interaction across racial groups within a given area’” are “centered largely on cultural tutelage” and “interracial understanding.”6 And, as Reed also points out, they downplay the effects of any actual redistribution, “—including ‘cash transfer programs,’ and, curiously, ‘minimum wage increases’”—on the grounds they will only “improve economics for a single generation” (166). (It’s as if Workers of the World Unite has turned into don’t give the man a fish, teach him…)

Both the study itself and the public splash it generated underscore the extent to which contemporary antiracism presumes the Thatcherite ideological victory. Chetty and his coauthors treat the neoliberal economic order as given, unassailable nature. They don’t take account of the policy interventions since the 1960s—on the one side, expansion of anti-discrimination enforcement and opening of occupational structures; on the other, public sector and social wage retrenchment, decline in unionization, and four decades of regressive income and wealth transfer—that have substantially affected black economic mobility. Nor do they consider whether the relative recency of that increased upward mobility might have consequential intergenerational effects, especially in an overall context of wage stagnation and regressive transfer. That’s why they can imagine redistributive policy only in the form of weak tea interventions like increasing the minimum—not living—wage, which they immediately dismiss as inadequate. Their stress on intergenerational mobility within that narrow context buttresses the view that racial inequity should be the inequality central to our concern. And their reduction of the universe of possible intervention echoes Thatcher’s other notorious dictum: “You know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and individual women and there are families.” And she would have been fine with Chetty et al.’s additional reification of individuals and families as neighborhoods—“It is our duty to look after ourselves, and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”

The overall trajectory of their account—from the study’s initial formulation of the problem through its conclusions and recommendations—is that fixing the disparities requires fixing people. That construct has been a standard deflection from the broader and deeper mechanisms driving inequality proceeding from the English Poor Laws through Chicago economists’ propagation of “human capital” ideology in the 1950s and anthropologist Oscar Lewis’s invention of the culture of poverty (rechristened in the 1980s and 1990s as the urban underclass) until it was formalized as policy through the victory of the culturalist, rather than redistributive, vision that defined the War on Poverty. That’s pretty much how it has to be if political-economic structures and, specifically, capitalist class relations are defined out of the picture. The emptiness of the authors’ recommendations for addressing the supposed mobility gap mirrors the emptiness of antiracism as a political agenda, even when it comes to actually fixing disparity.

What we’ve been talking about so far are different ways of understanding economic inequality, and our point has been that the very commitment to framing the inequality between rich and poor as the disparity between black and white is—if you want a more equal society—mistaken. But money isn’t everything. What about those disparities that may have a class component but where it looks like race or racism plays a significant role and an autonomous role? Examining the limitations and insidious features of how disparity discourse operates in the two other areas in which it is now most prominent—COVID-19 and police killings of civilians—will demonstrate just how class-skewed and counterproductive it is.

We’ve all heard a lot about racial disparities in deaths from the coronavirus—from the standard observation that “black and brown” communities have been hardest hit to Sanjay Gupta (CNN Chief Medical Correspondent) including in a list of biological factors that heighten risk of severe effects from the virus “being a person of color—Black African American, Latino Latinx or Native American.” There’s a sense in which both these observations are true, but there’s a much more powerful sense in which they’re false and in which the way they’re false, first, reproduces some of the most pernicious myths about race (the main one being that such a thing exists) and, second, deploys race and racism in a way that misrepresents the problem and thus misdescribes the solution.

Are persons of color at higher risk?7 Most readers probably already know many of the key risk factors with respect to COVID-19: according to the Centers for Disease Control, among them are asthma; chronic kidney disease being treated with dialysis; hemoglobin (a protein that transports oxygen in the blood) disorders; chronic lung disease; diabetes; immunocompromised status; liver disease; serious heart conditions; severe obesity; age of 65 or older; residence in nursing homes or long-term care facilities. All but the last two categories are specific medical conditions that can affect anyone in the general population. Those conditions have been shown to increase risk of serious harm from infection either clinically, by examination of specific effects the virus can have on people with those conditions, or statistically, by showing that people with those conditions are significantly more likely than the general population to succumb to the worst effects of the virus, or both.

The last two categories in particular are tied also to specific social circumstances, mainly advanced point in the life cycle, which is associated with diminished abilities to fight off disease. But other social circumstances are involved with them, as well as with many of the other conditions. For instance, nursing homes and long-term care facilities not only are likely to house people with conditions that make them especially vulnerable; they typically depend on care-giving workers who are underpaid and exploited and are themselves likely to be at greater risk of infection, and hence to transmit the infection, than the general population. As we all know, these “essential workers” may be celebrated as “heroes,” but in a for-profit healthcare system, where operators of such facilities, increasingly private equity and other investment firms, are likely to cut corners to maintain their bottom lines, the heroes are not just badly paid, their health is a secondary concern.

Healthcare workers, and essential workers in general, are disproportionately likely to get sick, and they are disproportionately black. More generally, we know that in the United States, people classified as black and Hispanic are disproportionately likely to be poor and economically marginal, to have inadequate access to healthcare, to work jobs that are hazardous, debilitating, and, in the case of COVID-19, likely to expose them to infection, and to live in relatively congested circumstances and in areas with elevated exposure to environmental toxins—all conditions that undermine basic health. In that sense, race is associated with risk because it is an umbrella category that encompasses relatively high proportions of people who live within the social circumstances that increase risk. It’s a kind of shorthand, a “proxy measure.” Proxy measures are what researchers use to try to get at the effects of a variable when they don’t have direct information on the variable itself. They use other variables that appear to move along with the one they’re interested in but for which they don’t have direct data to try to infer the significance of the category they’re interested in accounting for. Researchers commonly acknowledge using race as a proxy for class.

But why do we need a proxy for class? Why not just use class? Because, more often than not, we can’t. Although Vincente Navarro’s remark (to the 2003 graduating class of the Johns Hopkins Medical School), “The United States is one of the very few countries that do not include class in its national health and vital statistics,” no doubt overstated the case, his observation that the U.S. prefers to collect “health and vital statistics by race and gender” is on target. Comparing E.U. and U.S. approaches to eliminating disparities in health, Elizabeth Docteur and Robert A. Berenson note the E.U. focus on “inequalities between the most advantaged and disadvantaged sections of the population,” that is, “populations with lower education, a lower occupational class, or lower income.” “By contrast,” they go on to say, the U.S. data they analyze presents “health disparities associated with race and ethnicity as the primary focus of its drive to increase health equity.” So, scholars who want to examine class effects of COVID-19, for example, must rely on proxy measures—for example, ZIP codes, education levels, or race—to try to get at the question indirectly. Thus, whatever the role played by race in actually producing the vulnerability of any individual to the virus, the role played by race in explaining that vulnerability is foregrounded: the headline is black and brown communities bear the brunt of COVID-19, not working-class people bear the brunt of COVID-19.

Even when this substitution names essentially the same people, it’s a problem, in several ways.

First, it works to convert race from a proxy for other factors into a substitute for those other factors. Public health scholar R. Dawn Comstock and her co-authors in a 2004 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology surveyed 1,198 articles in that journal and in the American Journal of Public Health published between 1996 and 1999 and found that nearly 86 percent mentioned race but that in most, just over 57 percent, “the purpose for using race or ethnicity as variables was not described” (616) and “only rarely were policy recommendations made on the basis of findings associated with race or ethnicity” (617). That is, researchers often use race as a category for interpreting data simply because it’s already there in the way the data are collected and aggregated. Doing so seems appropriate because it is consistent with the common sense folk knowledge that “race” matters somehow and doing so thus perpetuates the idea that race matters somehow.

Second, the idea that race itself matters perpetuates the false idea that there is such a thing as race. But, biologically speaking, there isn’t. It’s not surprising that researchers once put a great deal of time and effort into looking for biological markers of the differences between races. What is surprising is that, long after the search for such markers has failed and there is consensus that the reason we haven’t found them is because they don’t exist, we continue to organize our thinking around them—as if there were something about the biology of black bodies as a function of their blackness that made them more susceptible to COVID-19. Too many medical practitioners, including doctors, assume that blacks, for example, have distinctive biological characteristics from whites. One recent study found that 50 percent of medical students or residents endorsed at least one false belief concerning racial differences in biology between blacks and whites. A companion study found that nearly three-fourths of a sample of people without medical training endorsed at least one of those false beliefs. It is worth underscoring in this regard that there is greater genetic diversity between two species of chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives, living in the same small region of Central Africa than there is within our entire species all over the globe.

There is a long and sordid history of the often tragic harms that folk beliefs about racial differences in biology have caused to people in this country and around the world.8 In the current environment, it’s too easy for people to assume that racial disparities stem from differences in racial biology. And, because racialist thinking is such a cloudy mush of fantasies, the folk belief doesn’t have to attribute the differences to biology. Folk beliefs about “culture” do the same work of planting confusion and misinformation. “Culture” in this context is typically only a polite way of saying race and one that doesn’t require any claims about biology, although it’s often used interchangeably to invoke essential difference. In its own way, a folk view of race as culture can be just as harmful as the biological view because it easily gives rise to victim-blaming arguments according to which people’s vulnerable health conditions are their own fault due to their diets and stereotypical destructive habits attributed to them. That in turn gives rise to arguments that “they” need to exercise greater personal responsibility and that “we” shouldn’t be expected to pay the costs of taking care of them. We’ve seen much of that sentiment during the COVID-19 crisis as well.

Third, what we focus on can make it more difficult to see other, maybe equally or more important patterns. Because public health data are not collected with income as a category for analysis, we can’t determine definitively whether rich people, of whatever race, have been on the average as vulnerable to the worst effects of COVID-19 as poor people of whatever race or whether rich seniors are as vulnerable as poor ones. That would be important information to have if we want to understand more clearly who in our overall population is at greater or lesser risk. We do, however, have clues. A recent study by Les Leopold and the Labor Institute examined a series of factors associated with higher death rates in New York City.

Neighborhoods with approximately one-third more African Americans than the average NYC neighborhood have nine more deaths per 100,000, making the average death rate jump from 201 per 100,000 to 210. If the percent of crowded housing also increased by a third, the death rate also increased by about nine per 100,000. Being born in Latin America, a category that includes many undocumented workers, was associated with twice the risk of dying from COVID-19 than that faced by African Americans and those who lived in crowded housing. This is likely because it is far more difficult for undocumented workers, even essential ones, to gain access to medical and financial assistance. Being old, of course is a major risk factor no matter what your ethnicity, place of origin, or income.

But income alone, a key indicator of class, was the most influential characteristic. Lower-income neighborhoods saw an addition of nearly 28 deaths per 100,000, increasing the average death rate by more than 10 percent, from 201 deaths per 100,000 to 229.9

The death rate in census tracts with median annual income below $25,000 was 221.8 per 100,000 population while for the census tracts with median annual income above $240,000 the death rate was 85.7 per 100,000. You were more than two-and-a-half times more likely to die from COVID-19 if you lived in a poor neighborhood than if you lived in a rich one. And “income alone” was “the most influential characteristic.10

So, fourth, not only does the use of race as a proxy for class produce a misunderstanding of the problem (racism), it also produces a misunderstanding of the solution (antiracism). The correct understanding of the problem is it’s not black and brown workers who are at risk, it’s low-wage workers, especially those who have to go to work during the pandemic. And this would be true even if all the low-wage workers were in fact black and brown. Why? Because even if it’s racism that has caused so many badly paid workers to be black and brown, it’s not racism that causes them to be so badly paid. Krogers and Amazon and McDonalds don’t pay their workers so little because so many of them are people of color. They pay them so little because that’s how they make a profit. If you made the workers proportionately white and Asian, they’d still be underpaid and they’d still be getting sick.

Again, this is not to deny the effects of racism and not to deny racial disparity. Racism helps explain why so many low-wage workers are black and brown. But it doesn’t explain their low wages. And all the antiracism in the world wouldn’t make the slightest contribution to raising those wages. So even if using race as a proxy for class were accurate in the sense that it named the exact same set of people, it would be profoundly misleading. Race can’t be a proxy for class because race tells you the problem is discrimination against the workers while class tells you the problem is getting the maximum value out of their labor. Or, turn it around: the analytic of class tells you the problem is how we treat front-line workers; the analytic of race tells you the problem is that too many black and brown people have to be front-line workers. That’s why the most ruthlessly profit-driven corporations can learn to love the most radical demands for eliminating black/white disparities. To make Jeff Bezos and his stockholders as rich as they are, Amazon needs to underpay its workers. It doesn’t need to care the slightest bit what color they are.

What saves many people from COVID-19 is not that they are white or Asian but that they are rich. And this is even more vividly true of the third person of the disparitarian trinity, police killings. It may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get himself murdered by the police; but, as with COVID deaths, these deaths are only categorized by race, sex, and age, so we can’t be sure. In any event, no one would think to protest that poor people are disproportionately killed by the police, since controlling poor people is basically what policing is. It’s the disproportionate killing of poor black men that’s the problem.

Part of this can be explained by the fact that, as we’ve already noted, black men are overrepresented among the poor. Indeed, if we were to imagine that the victims in police shootings came from the bottom three intervals in the chart below, then we might conclude that, at least in part, disproportionately being killed by the police tracks disproportionate poverty. The significance of social class here would just be a part of what researchers

have shown to be its (increasing) significance with respect to the justice system more generally where, as Adaner Usmani has said, incarceration has not been “defined by rising racial inequalities” but by rising class disparities, and where, in fact, while rates of incarceration have “dramatically” increased for poor black Americans, they actually decreased for “college educated African Americans.”11 A version of this same dynamic has in fact played out in health care where, as Frederick J. Zimmerman and Nathaniel W. Anderson say, between 1993 and 2107, the “black-white gap showed significant improvement” but “income disparities worsened.”12

Still, racism surely plays a significant role. For 2019, Mapping Police Violence records 30 police killings of unarmed black people and 53 killings of unarmed white people. ( And, if not for racism, some of that disproportionality would disappear. It would, for example, be significantly diminished if the police just killed one less black person and one more white person a month. But does anyone believe this would count as a solution, that it’s only the deaths we can blame on racism that matter? Everyone knows George Floyd’s name; neither of us knows the names of any of the unarmed white people killed by the police this year. No one should—and we don’t—deny that the disproportion is significantly an effect of racism. But no one should—and we don’t—think that the problem of police violence is caused by racism or can be solved by antiracism. And yet the whole point of #BlackLivesMatter (the reason it’s called BlackLivesMatter and not WorkersLivesMatter or PoorPeoplesLivesMatter much less the dreaded AllLivesMatter) is to center race and racism—to take the injustice that neoliberal capitalism needs and turn it into an injustice that neoliberal capitalism can eagerly and sincerely deplore.

In other words, every time racial disparity is invoked as the lens through which to see American inequality, the overwhelming role played by the increased inequality in the American class system is made invisible. And this is, of course, true on the right as well as the left—think of all the conservative commentators defending the police by invoking the spectre of black-on-black murder. And then think of the widespread agreement among criminologists that the Gini coefficient “predicts murder rates better than any other variable.” Conservatives who try to blame black crime on race and liberals who try to blame it on racism are both missing the point. If you want to distinguish between the left and the right, the relevant question is not what they think about race; it’s what they think when race is taken out of the equation.

From this standpoint, what we’re seeing today is not how the COVID-19 crisis has helped to reveal the structural inequalities of American life but how it has intensified the process of concealing them. Think of how hard the graph above works to teach us to see and be shocked by the disproportionate number of whites and Asians on the top and blacks and Latinos on the bottom rather than by the difference between the top and the bottom—to shock us with disparity rather than inequality.

And no response today is less convincing than, why can’t we be shocked by both? For one thing, we aren’t. Even though (and here’s where the graph does a little counter-hegemonic work) poor white households are a majority, the gap between rich and poor only gets traction today if it can be redescribed as the gap between white and black. There are no headlines trumpeting the discovery that poor people have worse health care than rich people, much less announcing that they are more often killed by the police. You might as well announce that poor people have less money than rich people. In fact, the commitment to addressing disparities has become so central that even when it’s clear that addressing the problems of poor people rather than black people would be more effective in solving the problems of black people, the move toward universality is rejected as a refusal to “center” black people.

In other words, centering black people has become a way of ignoring poor people—even poor black people! After all, every step in the direction of universal redistribution advances, however minimally, equality between rich and poor and works toward correcting racial disparities. No step in the direction of reducing disparities advances equality between rich and poor and, without universal redistribution, even the steps we do take toward reducing disparities are minimally effective. What does it mean, then, to make disparity the focus of our political agenda?

What we’re trying to do here is show that seeing inequality as disparity is seeing it through a neoliberal lens. (It’s worth recalling in this context that Margaret Thatcher, when asked what she considered her greatest achievement, replied “Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”) Of course, many people committed to BlackLivesMatter may understand themselves as committed also to social measures that go beyond rectifying the disproportionality problem. But, if they are, that commitment in no way follows from identification of disparity as the most important metric of inequality. And, as we have argued, that commitment, no matter how earnestly felt, is not borne out by the substance of antiracist political practice. For the record, this means that those who assert a “both/and-ist” posture—from the most self-satisfied, moralizing youthful enthusiasts to the most decrepit troglodytes steeped in their nostalgic Trotskyite fantasies—to denounce advocates of political-economic analysis and working-class politics as “class reductionists” are trying to delude either themselves or the rest of us, or both, regarding the extent to which they’ve capitulated to neoliberal vision.

Finally, although some antiracists—and certainly many liberals—express indifference toward or disdain for poor and working-class whites, it is practically impossible, as generations of black proponents of social democracy understood clearly, to imagine a serious strategy for winning the kinds of reforms that would actually improve black and brown working people’s conditions without winning them for all working people and without doing so through a struggle anchored to broad working-class solidarity.

And if it were possible, it would be wrong. A society where making black and white people equal means making them equally subordinate to a (mainly white but, really, what does it matter?) ruling class is not a more just society, just a differently unjust one. That’s the trouble with disparity.


1. Robert Manduca, “Income Inequality and the Persistence of Racial Economic Disparities,” Sociological Science 5 (March 2018): 182-205.
2. Preston H. Smith II, Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis: Housing Policy in Postwar Chicago (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012) and “The Quest for Racial Democracy: Black Civic Ideology and Housing Interests in Postwar Chicago,” Journal of Urban History 26 (January 2000): 131-157.
3. Paul Krugman, “Hillary and the Horizontals,” New York Times (June 10, 2016): n.p.
4. Black women are 26.1 percent of personal care aides, home health aides, and nursing assistants, and among those working full time, year round in these jobs, In an earlier version of this essay, we got some of our numbers mixed and produced figures that understated some of the disparities between black women and white men working front-line jobs. We regret the error and are grateful to the several readers who pointed it out, both for the correction and for the spirit in which it was offered. In order to avoid further confusing our readers (as we had managed to confuse ourselves), we’ve simplified the example to focus on health care aides, both because of the risks they’re running and because, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those are the jobs with the largest expected growth over the next ten years, It’s unacceptable for black women to be paid less than white men for this increasingly important job. But, and this of course is our point, it’s more profoundly, structurally, unacceptable that even if that disparity is eliminated, everyone who has that job will be condemned to precarity.
5. Actually, Ken Warren’s What Was African American Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012) argues that individual bourgeois ambitions (to make a lot of money, have a prestigious job, etc.) are standardly transformed into efforts to achieve social justice just by relocating them in black people. The white person’s desire to be rich becomes the black person’s desire to be equal. And although Warren is talking mainly about novels, it’s obviously not a fiction. As we write this, Bloomberg News is reporting on worries that “Although about 10% of directors at the 200 biggest S&P 500 companies are Black… the percentage of Black executives joining boards in 2020 fell to 11% from 13% the year before.” Black Corporate Directors Matter! Of course, proportionate representation for women and black people on boards of directors is very much a liberal rather than a leftist issue. But, equally of course, every time you frame inequality in terms of disparity, you’ve committed yourself to the logic of liberalism.
6. Touré F Reed, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism (New York: Verso, 2020), 166-67.
7. In the first place, people are more or less vulnerable as individuals, not as members of groups. In fact, there’s something like a sleight-of-hand at work in calling categories sorted from large aggregate data sets “groups.” Membership in a group in everyday usage implies some sense of cohesiveness around shared experiences or concerns. Statistical groups are numerical abstractions that researchers carve out from those aggregate data sets based on shared characteristics the researchers consider important elements of what they’re trying to study. So those “groups” are people categorized on the basis of shared characteristics that are pertinent to researchers. Those groupings can be larger or smaller, depending on researchers’ interests. They can be “nested” such that some smaller categories fit within, or under, larger ones. With regard to public health research and the notion of at-risk populations, the approach is to sort aggregate data, perhaps of the entire population, to determine what characteristics make, or seem to make, individuals more susceptible to undesirable outcomes. In the case of COVID-19, since everyone who is exposed seems to be at similar risk for contracting the virus, the critical issues are what characteristics make some individuals more likely than others to be exposed and what characteristics make those who do contract the disease more likely to suffer serious complications or death. Public health researchers and officials sort together people with those characteristics as at-risk populations, which means that, as individuals, they are more likely than the general population to experience severe complications, including death, if they contract the virus.
8. We have already noted the history of medical and political mischief generated by treating race as a legitimate biological category. That mischief can derive from ostensibly benign intentions no less than from ignoble or evil ones. Jonathan Kahn, in Race in a Bottle: The Story of BiDil and Racialized Medicine in a Post-Genomic Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), examines the alliance between Big Pharma, the Association of Black Cardiologists, and the Federal Drug Administration in the early 2000s that led to the first patent in history for a supposedly race-specific drug, a blood thinner that hadn’t proven effective for general use but was approved, after dubious testing, as effective for African-American men. Of course, it wasn’t. The confusion about what race is and isn’t, combined with the dominance of the disparities frame, has already led to a misplaced focus on calls for racial diversity in selecting subjects for clinical trials testing possible COVID-19 vaccines. Washington Post science writer Carolyn Y. Johnson displays the problem clearly
The unprecedented scientific quest to end the pandemic with a vaccine now faces one of its most crucial tests, and nothing less than the success of the entire endeavor is at stake. A vaccine must work for everyone—young and old; black, brown, and white. To prove that it does, many of the 30,000 volunteers for each trial must come from diverse communities. It’s a scientific necessity, but also a moral imperative, as younger people of color die of coronavirus at twice the rates of white people, and black, Hispanic and Native Americans are hospitalized at four to five times the rate of white people in the same age groups. (Carolyn Y. Johnson, “A Trial for Coronavirus Vaccine Researchers: Making Sure Black and Hispanic Communities are Included in Studies,” Washington Post [July 26, 2020]: n.p.)
We have no quibble with the contention that researchers should select clinical trial participants from a diverse population. However, Johnson’s claim presumes that racial classification can map onto biologically meaningful differences. Once again, it cannot, because race is an ideological contrivance imposed arbitrarily on a human species that certainly varies biologically, though not only not very much compared to other primate species, but in ways that have nothing to do with abstract racial taxonomy. Regarding medical practice in particular, Darshali Vyas and co-authors recently published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine sounding the alarm about ways that unjustified “race correction” in clinical algorithms can reinforce existing inequalities. They note
despite mounting evidence that race is not a reliable proxy for genetic difference, the belief that it is has become embedded, sometimes insidiously, within medical practice. One subtle insertion of race into medicine involves diagnostic algorithms and practice guidelines that adjust or “correct” their outputs on the basis of a patient’s race of ethnicity. Physicians use these algorithms to individualize risk assessment and guide clinical decisions. By embedding race into the basic data and decisions of health care, these algorithms propagate race-based medicine. Many of these race-adjusted algorithms guide decisions in ways that direct more attention and resources to white patients than to members of racial and ethnic minorities. (Darshali A. Vyas, Leo G. Eisenstein, and David S. Jones, “Hidden in Plain Sight—Reconsidering the Use of Race Correction in Clinical Algorithms,” New England Journal of Medicine 383, no. 9 [August 27, 2020]: 874-82; this quotation is from 874.)
Vyas et al. report that often “algorithm developers offer no explanation of why raical or ethnic differences might exist. Others offer rationales, but when these are traced to their origins, they lead to outdated, suspect racial science or to biased data.” Moreover, they observe that “racial differences found in large data sets most likely often reflect effects of racism—that is the experience of being black in America rather than being black itself—such as toxic stress and its physiological consequences. In such cases, race adjustment would do nothing to address the cause of the disparity. Instead, if adjustments deter clinicians from offering clinical services to certain patients, they risk baking inequity into the system” (879). In such instances, race is hardly intended as a proxy for class. Rather, it does the work that race has always done as a contrivance that makes class invisible and reads inequality into nature. And, unsurprisingly, market considerations also figure into the race corrections to the extent that cost effectiveness is an element in calculating the algorithms. Vyas et al. also report
A widely used used clinical tool took past health care costs into consideration in predicting clinical risk. Since the health care system has spent more money, on average, on white patients than on black patients, the tool returned higher risk scores for white patients than for black patients. Those scores may well have led to more referrals for white patients to specialty services, perpetuating both spending disparities and race bias in health care. (879)
9. Less Leopold, “COVID-19’s Class War,” The American Prospect (July 28, 2020): n.p.
10. Barbara Jean and Karen Fields discuss another incident that absolutely nails what’s wrong-headed about this moment of “blacks have it worse” chatter about COVID-19. In discussing this NYT story—, they note:
Sometimes the fog of racecraft rolls in at the last minute, as a derailing non sequitur to an otherwise logical argument. A few years ago, the New York Times reported that scientists who conducted an epidemiological study of asthma among school children in South Bronx produced damning evidence about environmental air pollution caused by heavy truck traffic. Their study identified the particle emissions, cited the location of major highways, and, through resourceful data collection, drew conclusions about the children’s exposure, in specific neighborhoods, at different hours of the day, to “very high fine particle concentrations on a fairly regular basis.” The correlations emerged: “Symptoms, like wheezing, doubled on days when pollution from truck traffic was highest.” It would seem as clear as noonday that class inequality had imposed sickness on these American schoolchildren. Yet the article’s summary tails off into confused pseudo-genetics. To a list of contributors to high asthma rates that includes heavy traffic, dense population, poorly maintained housing, and lack of access to medical care, the article adds “a large population of blacks and Hispanics, two groups with high rates of asthma.” Racecraft has permitted the consequence under investigation to masquerade among the causes. Susceptibility to filthy air does not depend on the census category to which the asthma sufferer belongs. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (New York: Verso, 2014), 40-41.
11. The editors, “Everything You Know about Mass Incarceration Is Wrong: An Interview with Adaner Usmani,” Jacobin (March 17, 2020): n.p.
12. Frederick J. Zimmerman and Nathaniel W. Anderson, “Trends in Health Equity in the United States by Race/Ethnicity, Sex, and Income, 1993-2017,” JAMA Network Open 2, no. 6 (June 5, 2019): n.p.; corrected JAMA Network Open 2, no. 7 (July 24, 2019).
Show CommentsClose Comments


  • by David Selsb
    Posted September 3, 2020 4:52 pm 0Likes

    This is a spectacular article. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your writing. I’m teaching “Class Notes” to my community college classes this semester. I’m going to buy “Stirrings in Jug” and The Jesse Jackson book. I’ll also check out Walter Benn Michael’s books and buy a couple of those. This article and many others I’ve read of yours (apart and together) unique in the current political climate You are doing a service to furthering a socialist project in this country. You provide intellectual heft and a robust understanding of political economy to the topics you explore.

    This article should be on the front page of Jacobin and Current Affairs. Those publications are losing me because they’re not examining society through the lens you’re using–a universalist, class-based lens.

  • by David Selsb
    Posted September 3, 2020 4:52 pm 0Likes

    This is a spectacular article. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your writing. I’m teaching “Class Notes” to my community college classes this semester. I’m going to buy “Stirrings in Jug” and The Jesse Jackson book. I’ll also check out Walter Benn Michael’s books and buy a couple of those. This article and many others I’ve read of yours (apart and together) unique in the current political climate You are doing a service to furthering a socialist project in this country. You provide intellectual heft and a robust understanding of political economy to the topics you explore.

    This article should be on the front page of Jacobin and Current Affairs. Those publications are losing me because they’re not examining society through the lens you’re using–a universalist, class-based lens.

  • by toby
    Posted September 8, 2020 10:47 pm 0Likes

    Great article overall, but there is a significant factual error in here. Reed says the National Women’s Law Center study finds a 20 cent per hour gap between black women and white dudes: “Overall, the average wage disparity for black women across the eleven occupational categories the report discusses is $.20 per hour, which, as the authors note, is especially significant for low-wage workers.”

    But there is no such statistic in the study. Per the study’s numbers, the SMALLEST hourly wage gap between black women and white dude is 96 cents per hour (for childcare workers). The absolute gap is larger for the other 10 categories, ranging all the way up to over $7/hour for hairdressers.

    Where does the 20 cent figure come from? I believe Reed took a crude average of the PERCENTAGE gaps between white men and black women for each of the 11 categories. These percentage gaps are presented in the data tables as the number of cents a black woman earns for every dollar a white dude makes. (They’re next to the hourly figures, which could have caused the confusion.) If you add up each of these figures and divide by 11, you get $0.8009, or almost exactly 20 cents less than the white dude’s $1.00. (It’s a meaningless figure, regardless, since there aren’t equal numbers of people employed in each category.) Again, that’s not an HOURLY disparity, it’s effectively the PERCENTAGE of an average white man’s earnings a black woman is paid.

    This error does speak to the thesis of the article, since Reed uses the 20 cent figure to minimize the racial disparity: “Disparity tells us the problem to solve is that the black women make $.20 an hour less than the white men. Reality tells us it’s not that $.20 an hour that makes those black women workers’ economic situations precarious. Everyone receiving an hourly wage of less than $20 is in a precarious economic position.” I entirely agree that it’s true that everyone receiving less than $20/hour is precarious, but it must be conceded that the black women employed in these categories are relatively more precarious than Reed’s 20 cent/hour figure implies.

    Since Reed acknowledges plenty of starker disparity numbers from the study, I’m guessing this was just a brain fart, although it must be admitted that it makes his class-not-race case stronger, so perhaps it’s better qualified as a happily unexamined brain fart.

    • by Todd Cronan
      Posted September 12, 2020 2:14 pm 0Likes

      Hi Toby — Thank you for the message. The authors went ahead and corrected the error. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. Best, Todd Cronan

  • by Benjamin Winterhalter
    Posted September 10, 2020 11:38 am 0Likes

    This is a wonderful and necessary article, but the paragraph about wage disparities contains a math mistake. If, for example, women earn $0.80 for every $1 men earn, and men earn $20 an hour, then women earn $16 an hour, more than a mere $0.20 less. The basic logic and analysis in the paragraph is correct, but as written the paragraph understates the disparity.

    • by Todd Cronan
      Posted September 11, 2020 6:08 pm 0Likes

      Thank you Benjamin, the authors went ahead and addressed your question. We really appreciate your pointing this out.

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